Nearly five years after the Daesh terrorist group's leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, proclaimed the formation of a so-called ‘caliphate' straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, the group's territorial control has now been reduced to one measly square mile on the East bank of the Euphrates river, in the village of Baghuz.
Sputnik spoke to one man, Amraz Goran, a Kurdish fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who's battling on the ground to repel the last of the group's most battle hardened fighters from the village.
"It is a difficult fight, that is for sure. There are not many of them left, but they know that their end is near. They are fighting for their lives," Mr Goran said over a crackling telephone line from a makeshift SDF camp on the outskirts of Baghuz.
"We have had to slow down the operation a little, because we have found out that they [Daesh] are still using innocent civilians as human shields and trying to send their fighters to the refugee camps disguised as civilians," he added.
We’re slowing down the offensive in #Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh. However we assert that the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon.— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) 3 March 2019
Within their shrunken fiefdom, the terrorists — which once controlled territory the size of Britain — now hold sway over only a few streets and abandoned buildings. Boxed in from the east and west by the rapidly advancing SDF, bombarded from the air by US-led coalition jets and surrounded by the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian allies on other fronts, the terrorists have nowhere left to run.
"Surprisingly they have not sent any suicide bomber trucks yet, but we believe they will start this in the final hours when they get so desperate. Over the last few days they have used some of their better weapons, they have launched surface-to-surface missiles at us, they have also used drones. Many of our men have been killed, and hundreds are wounded. We also know that they have set many traps for us in Baghuz, like roadside bombs," Goran explained.
Over the past week alone, reports say that as many as 13,000 people have streamed from Baghuz in an effort to escape the war of attrition, which is now under full swing. Mr Goran says that during the day Daesh fights its hardest, making use of the advanced weaponry it seized from abandoned weapon's depots. The cover of night provides the SDF with the best chance to advance, as Daesh lack the necessary technology, such as night-vision goggles, to see incoming enemy advances in the dark.
Several Isis fighters left Baghuz today. At least three of this group were no more than 14 years old. They were weak with hunger and fell upon the bread provided by the SDF. pic.twitter.com/hZE5HRWBeA— Bethan McKernan (@mck_beth) 1 March 2019
Yet, it is not Daesh's bullets or bombs, but the constant stream of civilians coming from Baghuz that have caused the SDF the biggest difficulties in this fight.
"Unfortunately, we have to be very very careful to check every person coming from Baghuz, including the woman and children above the age of 16. Of course, all adult men must be inspected to make sure they are not members of Daesh. If we find any Daesh, we will send them for interrogation. This is a very slow process and takes a lot of our time that could be spent fighting," says Goran.
Ultimately, the concern is that any Daesh fighters, especially men, who manage to slip through the SDF's net may simply be able to regroup in the refugee camps run for Baghuz's displaced and plan new attacks.
"If we let any Daesh through into the refugee camps, this is dangerous. It is possible that they could just make new plans in the camps and eventually overtake them. We can't give them an inch of territory," Goran says as the sound of machine-gun fire echoes in the background.
Yet, like many observers of the Syrian war, and of Daesh in particular, Goran's concerns are not necessarily confined to the immediate battlefront, but to the aftermath of Daesh's territorial collapse.
"Our brothers in Iraq have been raiding places in Irbil and Baghdad, based on shared intelligence, and found lots of information relating to Daesh plans. They prepared for losing the caliphate, and plan to simply change tactics to guerrilla warfare. Even when we take Baghuz, this will not be the end, but the beginning of something new," Goran warned.
It is not entirely clear what a reincarnation of Death may look like without the caliphate, but a slow and steady trickle of recent reports say that in the security vacuum of ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria, the terrorists are slowly reasserting themselves.
"The problem is that we drive Daesh out but we don't rebuild people's homes or give them their dignity, so many will turn to Daesh or Al-Qaeda out of frustration, this is an old pattern we have seen many times in our history," Goran outlined.
"People think that if you lose territory then you are defeated, actually reality is more complicated than this."
VIDEO: Explosions and gunfire in the Syrian village of Baghuz, the final patch of territory held by ISIS pic.twitter.com/IeruHTnlJt— BNO News (@BNONews) 3 March 2019